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Your Commission, Should You Choose to Accept It

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Sunday June 7th 2020 Trinity/Peace with Justice Sunday

Psalm 8; Matthew 28:16-20

Pastor Galen Zook

“Can’t We all Just Get Along?”

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to travel down to Washington DC to participate in a prayer vigil coordinated by the Episcopal archdiocese of Washington DC. The event was slated to take place at St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square. This was the location where a few days prior, according to video evidence and eyewitness accounts, law enforcement officers used chemical agents and flash bangs to clear the square of protesters so that President Trump could come through the park to inspect the church (which had previously been set on fire by demonstrators) and to have his picture taken with a Bible in front of the church.

Myself and the other clergy members were prevented from getting anywhere near the church by the national guard and heavily armed police officers wearing riot gear. 

Although I arrived a few minutes late and missed the actual prayer time, it was helpful to see firsthand the state of affairs in our nation’s capital. The normally busy streets were essentially empty, with the exception of heavily armed police officers and protesters.  High end businesses were boarded up to prevent vandalism. I could see the charred remains of several cars that been set on fire, and stores that had been broken into and looted. The whole scene reminded me of our own city of Baltimore 5 years ago, when the National Guard rolled into Baltimore to quell the violence that had erupted in response to Freddie Gray’s death. 

Now, no matter what side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, as followers of Jesus Christ, we find ourselves longing for peace and an end to conflict. We lament the death of George Floyd and the many others who have died at the hands of police officers. We also mourn those police officers and soldiers who have died serving in the line of duty. And of course we lament the destruction of property that has taken place when protests turn violent.

Very few of us like conflict, and we might be prone to wonder, “why can’t we all just get along?”

If you want Peace, Work for Justice

But true peace — Biblical peace, in the Bible, the Hebrew word is shalom, is not merely the absence of conflict. True peace, or shalom, includes wholeness and it entails making things right — making things the way they were meant to be. 

And so, to paraphrase Pope John Paul VI, if we want peace, we must work for justice.

Biblical peace — Shalom — is what we see in the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, when God created the world and declared that it was good. There we see people, made in the image of God, in true and in right relationship with God and with each other. No violence, no conflict, no abuse, no injustice. Everyone getting along with each other, with God, and with the world.

Of course, not long afterwards, sin entered the world as human beings chose what they thought was best for themselves, at the expense of others. And we see this sin creating a rift between people and each other, and between people and God.

Although the paradise that God created did not last very long before humans chose to go their own way, these first few chapters in Genesis shed light on certain significant and fundamental truths that are important for us to consider as we pursue peace and justice in our day.

All Life is Sacred

First of all, we see that all people were created in the image of God (see Gen. 1:27). This means that each and every person, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, age, or stage of life, has value and purpose to God. 

This is a truth that Christians fundamentally know and hold dear, and it leads many well-meaning White Christians to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “All Lives Matter!”

Now, while it is an absolute fundamental truth that All Lives Matter to God, that is not really the question that is at stake in the minds of those who proclaim Black Lives Matter. Yes, absolutely, each and every one of us has been created in the image of God, and each and every one of us has inherent worth to God.

The question in the minds of protesters is, do Black Lives Matter in our country and to our society? This is the question for which the response seems to be unclear, and that is why there is a felt need to clearly and unequivocally state that Black Lives Matter. 

In light of the police brutality that is disproportionately targeted towards black and brown people in our country, in the face of structured and systematic racial discrimination and hatred that is most often directed towards African-Americans, Latinos, and Native peoples, and in light of the economic and educational disparities in our society that negatively impact people of color, and those in impoverished urban and rural areas of our country, there is a felt need to specifically highlight that Black Lives matter to God, and should indeed matter to us as well!

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The second fundamental truth that we see in the first 2 chapters of Genesis is that, as human beings, we have been granted real power by God, to work for the flourishing of the earth and its resources.  As the psalmist declares in Psalm 8, “You have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Psalm 8:5-6).

But of course, as we know, “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility!”

As humans, we were not destined to walk through this life subject solely to the whims of nature or the impulses of fate. We have been given hearts to feel the pain of others.  We have been given minds to think and to invent and create, to solve problems and to address issues. We have been given bodies to work, and to labor, to harness the elements of the universe to advance our society and to work for good in the world. 

This means that when we see a problem or concern, we shouldn’t sit back and wait for someone else to address it. If we have the skills and the opportunity to fix something, we should do it! But we need the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit to know that we are on the right path, to convict us when we go astray, and to point us in the direction we ought to go. 

God is the Ultimate Judge and Ruler

Third, and finally, see here in the first few chapters of Genesis that God is the ultimate judge and ruler, and that as humans, even as we work for good in the world, we are desperately in need God’s divine intervention. When the first human beings rebelled against God and went their own way, they were ashamed and tried to cover up their wrongdoing. But they were not able to hide from God, who sees all and knows all. And they did indeed receive punishment. God did not strike them dead right then and there as they deserved, but because of their rebellion, sin and death entered the world. People began hurting and harming one another and creation. Adam’s firstborn son Cain killed his younger brother Abel, and God stepped in as the judge.

And all throughout human history, in various times and in various ways, God has stepped in to intervene — sometimes with judgment and wrath — but time and time again, we see God extending mercy and grace, even to those who are most undeserving. 

In the ultimate display of God’s justice and mercy at work, we see God through Jesus, coming down to this earth, taking on the form of a human, living life among us, to proclaim God’s love and grace and forgiveness through word and through deed, ultimately dying on the cross in our place, taking the punishment that we were due, to free us from bondage to sin and to restore us to shalom — right relationship with God and with one another.

The Great Commission

Of course we know that Jesus did not stay in the tomb, but that three days later he rose again, conquering sin and death and the grave. He appeared to His disciples, breathed on them the power of the Holy Spirit, and then in one final act of empowerment, commissioned them (and us) with the role and responsibility to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Even after all that we as people have been through, and all that we have done to rebel against God, all of the times that we’ve rejected God’s grace and mercy in our lives, still Jesus entrusted his disciples with great power and with great responsibility — to make disciples of all nations! Baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded.

But let us pay careful attention to this task with which we have been entrusted. Our task is not to get more people to sign up for our political agendas or to vote the way we would have them to vote. Our task is not to get them to join our institutions or organizations, to subscribe to our particular way of thinking. 

Instead, our task is to make disciples of Jesus Christ! We are to teach people exactly what Jesus commanded — to love God and our neighbors (Mark 12:31), and to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). To do to others what we would want them to do to us (Matt. 7:12). To forgive those who have wronged us (Matt. 18:21-22), and not to judge others (Matt. 7:1-3), but to pray for those who have persecuted us. And to pick up our crosses, and to follow him wherever he may lead.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus also entails following in the footsteps of Jesus. Weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn, standing up for those who are oppressed, and loving even those who are on the margins of society.

Our Commission — Should We Choose To Accept It

To paraphrase from the TV series Mission: Impossible — this is our mission (or Commission) — should we choose to accept it! Will we go into all the world? Will we make disciples of all nations? Will we go to all people, and welcome all into our midst, no matter their background? Will we teach all people to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? Will we stand up for all who are oppressed, and provide comfort to all who are hurting? 

In the name of Jesus our Lord, may it be so! 

Breathe

Audio version of this sermon can be found here

Video version of this sermon

Sunday May 31st 2020 Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-6; John 20:19-22

Pastor Galen Zook

Like Breathing

Breathing is something that most of us don’t usually give much thought to. We breathe in and out all the time, every moment of the day, without thinking about it. We even have a saying for when something is normal and natural and comes easily to us. We say that it’s “like breathing.”

But of course recently we’ve become much more conscious of our breathing. The coronavirus pandemic that we’re living in, the shortness of breath that accompanies the illness, and the need to wear masks, when around other people has made us think a whole lot more about our breathing. 

The biggest complaint that I’ve heard (and experienced for myself) since we’ve been asked to wear masks out in public places is that it’s difficult to breathe with them on. For those of you who have to wear a mask for hours on end at your jobs or places of employment, I admire you.

But for any of us who have ever experienced shortness of breath for ourselves, or ever held the hand of a loved one who was gasping for air and struggling to breathe, we know that wearing a mask in public is a small price to pay to protect not only ourselves but also those around us, should any of us unknowingly be carrying the virus.

“I Can’t Breathe”

But if we weren’t already more conscious of our breathing due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the events in Minneapolis over this past week have served to bring the topic of breathing even more to the forefront of our minds. 

On May 25th, George Floyd, an African-American man from Minnesota, died after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that occurring after Floyd was unresponsive, according to the criminal complaint filed against Chauvin. Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on the road, while Chauvin had his knee on his neck. Video recordings by bystanders, showing the arrested Floyd repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe,” were widely circulated on social media platforms and broadcast by the media. 

The arrest was conducted after Floyd allegedly attempted to use a $20 bill in a deli, which an employee identified as counterfeit. 

Since the death of George Floyd, the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” has once again become a rallying cry by protestors in the movement to end police brutality and violence, particularly against African-Americans.

Of course over the past week, protests have broken out in response to Floyd’s death, not only in Minneapolis but in other places around the country, as protestors cry out for the officers responsible for Floyd’s death to be held accountable for their actions.

Pentecost

In light of the growing unrest in our country, and the ever-increasing racial and political divisions that we are seeing, it’s significant to me that today is Pentecost Sunday, the “birthday of the Church,” when we remember the Holy Spirit being poured out upon the early believers. 

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus’s disciples were gathered together in the Upper Room after Jesus’s death and resurrection, hiding away for fear or persecution, and that Jesus appeared to his disciples and “breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).

The book of Acts tells us that sometime later, “when the day of Pentecost had come…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4).

Breath. Wind. Fire. God used these seemingly ordinary elements of nature to usher in the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the early believers. And after the Holy Spirit Spirit fell upon them, they were never the same again. 

The immediate sign of their transformation was that they immediately began to speak in other languages. Languages they had never learned or been educated in, and yet languages that the Jews of the diaspora who were gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world for the festivals of Passover and Pentecost could understand. This international community of Jewish pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in their own native languages, and they were immediately drawn to see the miraculous event that was taking place.

The Apostle Peter explained that what was taking place was what had been prophesied by the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18).

The Birthday of the Church

That day, 3,000 people became followers of Christ, and immediately they began fellowshipping together, studying the Word, making disciples, caring for the needs of those around them, and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through both word and through deed.

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, and in light of what’s going on in our society right now, it’s significant to note that from day 1, the Church was made up of people from every national, language, and tongue, from all around the world. The Holy Spirit was a unifying force, that transformed individual people’s lives, upended cultural and societal norms, and empowered both men and women, and the old and the young to proclaim God’s Word, and created a community of people who looked out for both the physical and spiritual needs of everyone around them. 

And all of this came about through Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit into the lives of his disciples. Just as God breathed into the first human being in Genesis chapter 2 and people became living, breathing souls (see Genesis 2:7), so too when Jesus breathed his Spirit onto his disciples they were raised to newness of life. When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we are created anew — we are no longer the same, we are now living, breathing beings, who are being remade into Christ’s image, called to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on this earth.

Balloons

When I was asking God for an image to describe what happens when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, the image I had was of a balloon.

Now like this balloon, each and every person who is alive is alive because we have breath inside of us. And we know from the Bible that we are alive because God has given us life. 

As it says later on in the book of Acts, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Each and every person in the world, no matter their ethnicity, their age, their gender, their religion, their nationality, has been made in the image of God. 

But when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we are like this balloon that has been filled with helium. When the power of the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we are completely transformed on the inside. Now we may look the same on the outside as we did before, but what’s inside of us completely changes the way that we interact with the world around us. 

Whereas before we were just filled with a lot of hot air, now we are filled with the Spirit of the Living God! Whereas before, many of us just sort of bobbed around without purpose or direction, now we can move onward and upward. Whereas before, we could be batted around, tossed by every wind and doctrine, falling prey to every whim and wiff that might come our way, now we are set on a trajectory to soar!

Filled With Hot Air?

Now there are many people in our world who claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. They say that they have the Spirit of God inside of them. They claim to be followers of Christ. They say that they are “born again,” that they’ve been “saved” and that they’re going to heaven when they die. But their outward actions prove otherwise! Many of us know that people who claim to be Christians can be some of the meanest, most bigoted, prejudiced, and prideful people around! 

If you claim to have the Spirit of God living inside of you, but that “spirit” leads you to look down on other people, then you might not be filled with the Holy Spirit — instead, you might be filled with just a bunch of hot air! If you go around lying, or complaining, or gossiping, or spreading falsehoods, or spewing forth racial epithets or spreading hatred or negativity or prejudice or nationalism or other narrow-minded ways of thinking, then you are more like a balloon filled with hot air than a balloon that is filled with helium.

Now don’t get me wrong. As followers of Christ we are not going to reach perfection on this side of eternity. But if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, then we should be more kind and loving, and caring, and compassionate and grace-filled people than we were before the Spirit of the Living God came upon us. 

Being filled with the Holy Spirit should make us more like Jesus Christ, who taught us and showed us what it looks like to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43, 44). Having the Spirit of the Living God breathed upon us should lead us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who cared for the poor, and the sick, the hurting and the dying, the marginalized and the ostracized, the outcasts, and all who might be considered the “least of these.” 

Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me!

Friends, we need a mighty movement of the Holy Spirit in our world today. We need the Holy Spirit to fall upon us just like on the day of Pentecost. We need a movement of the Spirit that breaks down dividing walls, that brings peace in the midst of chaos, that brings increased understanding across racial and ethnic and political divisions. 

We need a movement of the Holy Spirit that brings an end to violence, and to the causes that create it, a movement of the Spirit that uproots injustice, breaks down the walls of division, restores peace to our streets, and that allows the marginalized and oppressed peoples of our world to be able to breathe freely. We need a mighty move of God that unifies the Church, and completely transforms and upends society.

It’s difficult to know where to start. It’s hard to know what to say in a time like this. But all I know is that a movement of the Holy Spirit like this is going to start with confession, and repentance, and opening up our lives up to God, allowing God to breathe the Holy Spirit into each and every one of us and to totally and completely transform us from the inside out. 

Only when we experience a move of God like this will peace and justice come to our world. Only when we open ourselves up to the work of God in our lives can we be agents of change and transformation. Only when we experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives can we be people to truly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and through deed.

When we experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we may not look any different on the outside, but only then will we be ready to soar!

Glory

Sunday May 24th 2020

John 17:1-11

Pastor Galen Zook

Churches are Essential

This past Friday, the president of the United States of America made an announcement stating that churches and other places of public worship should be considered “essential,” and mandated that states allow churches to reopen. This of course comes a few months after governors all across the United States were forced to make the difficult decision to temporarily close down non-essential businesses and to limit the number of people who can gather together in physical spaces due to the global Coronavirus pandemic.

Now while I for one have always believed that churches are essential to the spiritual health and well-being of believers, and while I absolutely agree that churches play a vital role in our world and our society, I do believe that there has been some misunderstanding. Because there seems to be the perception that during this time of the global Coronavirus pandemic, that churches have closed!

But nothing could be further from the truth. To quote from the children’s song that many of us grew up singing in Sunday School, “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people” (UMH 558)!

As one of my seminary professors and fellow United Methodist pastor Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt so astutely observed in a Facebook post the other day, “the church, for many of us, isn’t closed and never has been – it just relocated to virtual space. And in fact the church has never stopped worshiping, praying, teaching, calling, disciplining, feeding the hungry, serving, delivering meals, comforting the sick and dying, giving, fellow shipping, encouraging, hoping.” Amen, and amen!

We Have Not Stopped Having Church!

I am glad that we have not stopped having church. We have indeed worshiped and prayed and fed the hungry, and cared for the sick, even as we have abided by the stay-at-home directives and limited our physical interactions with each other. 

I’m grateful for those of you who have come to serve at our food pantry on a weekly basis — not only for those of you who hand out the bags of groceries on Wednesday mornings, but also those who come all throughout the week to pack the bags, those who go to the store to pick up food, and those receive donations from the other churches in our area. 

I’m also grateful for the few of us, including our worship leaders and musicians, who have come together weekly to produce these worship services for our livestream. We have practiced and will continue to practice the utmost caution and abide by the directives not only of our local government officials, but also our bishop and conference, in continuing to worship via technology rather than together in person until is has been deemed safe to do so for all of those in our church and community.

I do long and look forward to the day when we can gather together in worship here in our church building, but I am so grateful that church is not closed, and that once again this morning we can worship together via technology. In the Bible, Jesus said that where two or three are gathered together, there he would be in our midst (Matt 18:20). And I believe that that includes gathering together via phone, and internet, and other forms of technology. 

So this morning as we dig into the scriptures, let us be comforted that Jesus is indeed in our midst, right where you are sitting as you hear the Word this morning (hopefully from the comfort and safety of your own home!) 

Chosen and Precious

This morning we conclude our sermon series entitled “Chosen and Precious”

Two weeks ago we looked at Peter’s letter to the Gentile Christians, in which he described Jesus as a living stone, the cornerstone upon which the whole Church is built. Peter said that all of us who are Christ’s followers, Jews and Gentiles alike are also living stones, chosen and precious in God’s sight. 

Last week we learned that being chosen and precious does mean that sometimes we will be tried and tested. Just like silver is tried and tested in the fire, we too, as we submit our lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ, will find that the tests and trials that we endure in this life will serve to purify us and make us beautiful in God’s sight.

This morning we turned to the topic of “glory,” as we look at John’s Gospel account of Jesus’s last evening before he was crucified and betrayed, in which he prayed for himself and for his disciples, saying, “Father the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you…I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (John 17:1,4-5).

Glory

Glory. Many people in our world would love to have glory. They want fame, and fortune, they crave attention and admiration. And sometimes we equate these with glory.

But as many of us know, the path to glory usually entails great personal sacrifice. Glory is not something that can be bought or sold, it is something that has to be earned or won. As the saying goes, “no guts, no glory.”

We may admire or pay attention to the lives of the rich and famous. But we generally reserve the term “glory” for those who have earned our honor and respect.

The word “glory” often evokes images of wartime heroes. Soldiers who risked their lives to rescue fallen comrades, sacrificing their lives for the cause of freedom, with a deep-seated conviction that in doing so they were making the world a better place for their friends and loved ones back home.

Of course on this Memorial Day weekend, we pause to honor and remember the sacrifice of our own friends and loved ones who lost their lives on battlefields throughout the centuries —  many of you have lost friends and loved ones, and we stand with you as you remember their lives and honor the tremendous sacrifice that they made.

Giving Glory to God

For Jesus, we know that the process of his glorification also entailed great personal sacrifice — laying down his life to save us, dying on the cross and rising again 3 days later. In giving his life for us, and in conquering sin and death and the grave, Jesus brought glory to his Father, and Jesus himself was glorified.

In return, we rightly praise and worship and adore Jesus — we recognize him as the Son of God who gave his life for us, and because of the sacrifice he made for us, we too can have eternal life.

But interestingly enough, in his prayer for his disciples and for us, Jesus also says that he has been “glorified” in us! 

Jesus prayed to his Father, “I am asking…on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them” (John 17:9-10).

Glorified in Us?

This of course begs the question, how exactly has Jesus been “glorified” in us? What part could we possibly have played in all of this?

I want to pause here and say that although these verses may seem to speak only of the disciples who were alive during Jesus’s lifetime, later on in verse 20 we see that Jesus was also praying for all of us who would come after them. He said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). And so I believe that these verses do indeed include us.

 

After stating that he has been glorified in his disciples, Jesus said “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).

 

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, he appeared to many of his followers. But eventually he ascended back into heaven, where we are told that he is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us (Rom. 8:34). 

 

But if Jesus is in heaven, interceding for us, how will those who do not know Jesus come to believe in him? How will those who have never experienced the power of God in their lives, come to know Jesus for themselves? How will those who have never known Jesus, come to worship and adore and glorify Him?

 

This is where we come in. This is why Jesus prayed that we would be one. Because we together, as the church — we are the physical tangible presence of Jesus on this earth. We, together as a body, as we heal the sick, and care for the wounded. As we feed the hungry, and yes even as we sacrifice our lives for the good of those around us, we bring glory to God the Father and to Jesus Christ the Son. 

 

This is why it’s significant that we do not stop being the Church during this Coronavirus pandemic. This is why it’s important to note that we have not stopped having church! This is why we boldly proclaimed that we cannot and have not stop gathering and worshipping together — albeit through technology. This is why we cannot stop taking care of those who are in need around us. Because Jesus is worthy of our praise and our worship and our adoration. And it is our duty, and our privilege, to bring God glory, so that all might come to know God’s saving love.

 

So let’s continue to gather together as one! Let’s continue to join together by phone and internet, and when it is safe to gather together once again in person. Let’s continue to work for the good of all, to lift one another up in prayer, and to proclaim God’s word. Let’s continue to use our time, talents, and resources to boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world that is desperately in need of God’s love, grace, mercy, and peace.

 

Tested and Tried

Sunday May 17th 2020

Psalm 66:8-10, 16-20; John 14:15-21

Pastor Galen Zook 

Tested and Tried as Silver

The psalmist said,  “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.”

I don’t know if any of you have ever felt like you’ve been “tested” by God, or if you’ve ever felt like you were going through a fiery ordeal, but it’s very possible that some of us may feel that way right now. Many people in our world are experiencing joblessness, or financial insecurity. Many are experiencing health issues related to the Coronavirus, any many people have friends or family members who are sick or who have weakened immune systems.

Others maybe are experiencing loneliness or social isolation, or have fears are anxieties related to any of the above. Still others of you are dealing with the stress of trying to work from home, while also homeschooling your children and trying to find some peace and sanity in the midst of everyone living on top of each other all the time.

When silver is tested, it’s taken through a fiery furnace, and the fire actually causes the impurities to burn off or rise to the surface so they can be removed. After the impurities have been removed, what’s left is pure, valuable metal.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes Stronger

Many of us know from personal experience that tests and trials do serve to make us stronger. We even have a saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”

But at the same time, during the process of enduring tests and trials, the impurities in our own lives come to the surface.

Times such as the one that we’re living in right now tend to bring everything to the surface. The faults and failures of poor leadership is most evident during times of crisis, as is the strength and courage of competent leaders.

In the midst of the busyness of everyday life, many of us might be able to cover up things like anger, or bitterness. But when things heat up, those hidden tendencies tend to come out.

At the same time, people who are compassionate, or merciful, or loving, often grow even more-so when they go through tests and trials.

Trials and tribulations and loneliness bring out the best and the worst in us — and they tend to strengthen our resolve — for better or for worse.

Through Fire and Through Water

For the author of Psalm 66, the tests and tribulations that the people of Israel faced throughout their history served to highlight the goodness and mercy of God. 

Depicting God as a master craftsman, testing silver and removing the dross, the psalmist recounts some of the trials and tribulations that the people of Israel had experienced over the years.

The psalmist says, “You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water, yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” (Psalm 66:11-12).

The people of Israel had indeed gone through many fiery ordeals. Enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, they had endured famine and hardship, they were attacked by enemy armies, they experienced sickness and plagues, you name it. And yet, the psalmist says, “you [God] have brought us out to a spacious place.”

Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen?

This of course begs the question, is God the One behind the suffering in the world? Is God the One who brings about trials and tribulations, storms and pestilence, and plagues? Or even, we might ask today, did God send the Coronavirus?

From the poet’s perspective in Psalm 66, some of the tests and trials that the Israelites faced throughout their history were directly caused by God. The psalm-writer says, for example, “you brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs” (Psalm 66:11). Other tribulations, however, seemed to be merely permitted by God — “You let people ride over our heads” (Psalm 66:12a). In those instances there was an enemy involved — God was not the one bringing about the suffering, but on the other hand neither did God intervene to stop it from happening.

And then there are those other experiences recounted in Psalm 66, where God is not the who caused the suffering nor does it even seem that God willed for it to happen — but instead, God acted as their rescuer. The psalmist said,  “we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place” (Psalm 66:12. 

What’s interesting to me is that psalmist seems to harbor no bitterness toward God, no matter God’s involvement. Instead the psalmist sees God as using each and every scenario for their good. 

And in response, the Psalmist praises God, and offerings burnt offerings as sacrifices. The psalmist even gathers everyone around to hear them talk about what God has done for them (see Psalm 66:16). Psalm 66 ends with the psalmist saying, “Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.” (Psalm 66:20).

The psalmist acknowledges that no matter whether hardship or difficulty is from God, God can use tests or tribulations or trials to purify us and strengthen us.

When We’re in the Furnace

The reality is that most of the time we have no idea why bad things happen to us. Often we can’t even find any redemptive value to suffering, even after years of looking back and mulling over past events. Many times we have absolutely no idea whether the suffering we’re experiencing is an attack from the Enemy, or whether we’re just going through a bad experience because we live in a fallen world where bad things happen.

I’m personally skeptical of people who try to say that they know why something bad is happening, or people who claim to have received a revelation that God is the one who caused some evil act of nature to occur.  

Personally I think there is so much that we don’t understand about the nature of the universe — and I think it’s best to admit that. I believe that most of the bad things that we experience in this life fall into the third category — events for which we may never know why they happened. But we can trust that no matter the cause, no matter whether we ever know the reason or purpose, God can work through any experience to bring about good in our lives, if we will open ourselves up and allow God to work in our lives.

Refined

Imagine with me for a second that the silver that went through the fire refused to allow the master craftsman to scrape the dross and impurities off the top. Now, I know that silver doesn’t have a mind of its own, and it can’t prevent the craftsman from doing his or her work. But just imagine that after the silver went through the fiery furnace, the silver said, “No! Don’t touch me! I’m fine the way I am.”

Sure, there would be some pure silver buried down beneath the surface. But what would be most apparent would be the impurities. The furnace would have brought up all the dirt and dross to the surface, and rather than making the silver more beautiful, it would be dirty and ugly.

As human beings, we have been created with freedom of choice. We are not drones or robots moving through this world, without a mind of our own. As humans we have been created with a will and a conscience. And while there are many things that happen to us that are outside of our control, we can choose whether or not we’re going to allow God to work through those things to purify us and strengthen us.

Keep in mind — whether or not you allow God to work in your life, you’re going to go through the same tests and trials. Following Jesus does not mean in any way shape or form that your life is going to be perfect and easy. The difference is in how we come out the other side.

When we go through tests and trials, the impurities will come to the surface. The ugliness, the bitterness, the dross, and the pure silver — it will become very apparent. We can try to hide our faults and failures, we can try to cover them up. We can lie to ourselves or to other people. We can bury our secret sins and hope that no one will find out. But if we do, we’ll become even more entrenched in our own webs of deception.

Alternatively we can let God in. We can admit our faults and failures, and we can allow God to come in and scrape the impurities away, making us even stronger and more beautiful than before.

Not Alone

It’s hard to admit our mistakes. It hurts our pride to admit where we’ve gone wrong. But the good news is that we don’t have to do this alone. In John 14, Jesus promised us that if we love him and keep his commandments, then he would give us another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, which he called “the Spirit of Truth” to live inside of us, to be with us. 

This is a beautiful promise of God’s provision and protection and presence with us through the Holy Spirit, as we live in God’s love, and keep Jesus’s commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We will experience tests and trials and tribulations in this life. We may not always know why they happen, but we can rest assured that if we live in God’s love, God will indeed dwell with us, and use even the negative experiences that we go through to transform us into something beautiful.

Living Stones

Sunday May 10th 2020

1 Peter 2:2-10

Pastor Galen Zook

Living Stone

Today we begin a new sermon series entitled “Chosen and Precious,” which comes from our New Testament  lesson for today, The second chapter of 1st Peter, in which Peter refers to Jesus as the “cornerstone, chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:6).

Peter actually talks about a number of different metaphors related to stones in this passage, and it’s a little hard to keep track. He starts off referring to Jesus as a “living stone” (1 Peter 2:4).

The phrase “living stone” sounds like the name for a rock band, sort of like the Grateful Dead. It’s a paradox, right? I mean, how can a stone be alive? Stones are in many ways the definition of something that appears to be lifeless. 

But here Peter is referencing an analogy that had been used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In the book of Psalms, for example, God is referred to as our rock and our fortress. The One that we can build our lives upon. A sure foundation.

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah said “Thus says the Lord God, See I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic’” (Isaiah 28:16).

The Stone that Was Rejected

Although God is our rock and our refuge, and our sure foundation, the rock that we can and should build our lives upon, so often we as people turn away from God, refuse to look to God for our source of strength and hope. We cling to so many people and things other than God, we try to build our lives on so many things that are fragile and meaningless in comparison to God.

The apostle Peter knew this all too well. He had been one of Jesus’s core disciples, had given up everything to follow him. He has listened to Jesus teach, had watched him cast out demons, and had even walked on water with Jesus. But when the time came for Jesus to be crucified, when he was arrested and tried and beaten, Peter had turned away from him. He had denied that he even knew Jesus.

Now, keep in mind that Peter’s name means “rock!” Peter was not actually his birth name. Peter was the nickname that Jesus had given to him, sort of like calling him “Rocky.”

But even Peter, The Rock, had turned away from Jesus in his hour of need. 

And, just as it had been predicted throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus was rejected by the religious and the political leaders, and even by many of his other disciples, like a stone that builders cast to the side because it doesn’t seem to fit with the other ones. 

Peter, quoting from the book of Isaiah, wrote “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner” (1 Peter 2:7, Psalm 118:22).

Picture construction workers at a building site, sorting through stones as they’re constructing a wall. They come to a stone that just doesn’t fit, it’s so different from all the other ones that it seems unusable, and so they toss it to the side.

But then, later on they’re looking for a stone that they can use as a cornerstone. The cornerstone (or foundation stone or setting stone) is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones are set in reference to this stone, determining the position of the entire structure.

The Cornerstone

We often think of cornerstones as more of a decorative or commemorative element, like the cornerstone on our church building that states the name of our church and when it was first built. Our cornerstone even has the name of the stone chapel that was built before the rest of the sanctuary was completed.

But in biblical times, the cornerstone was the stone that would have been used to compare and to measure all of the other stones as they were being built. The cornerstone was the most important stone because it set the pattern, the template, for the rest of the building. 

So I can just imagine the builders looking around, wondering what stone they are going to use for the cornerstone, and then one of them trips over the stone that had been tossed to the side, and says “here it is! This is the one that we need. This is the perfect stone for the cornerstone. It didn’t fit with all the other ones. It wouldn’t have worked for the regular wall, but it’s going to be perfect to serve as the foundation stone.”

I think that’s exactly what happened for Peter and the other disciples when Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus had been rejected by all of the religious and political leaders of their day and even the disciples doubted whether he was truly the Messiah. But when Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning and appeared to them filled them with the power of the holy Spirit, their lives were never the same again. They realized that Jesus was indeed the foundation that they could build their lives upon. 

And so the best term that Peter can come up with for Jesus is that he is a living stone. He is surely not a dead stone, he is very much alive, but he is the very strong foundation that we can build our lives upon!

Peter says that Jesus is “chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6).

Living Stones

Then Peter says something rather shocking. Because in the same breath as he refers to Jesus as a living stone, chosen and precious, he points out that those of us who believe in Jesus Christ are also called to be living stones! (1 Peter 2:5). We are called to be people who embody the living Jesus inside of us, people who are bearers of the Good News. We who have the spirit of God living in us and working through us, we too are chosen and precious stones!

Like stones that have been built into a beautiful church building, we too are to be built together into a beautiful place of worship, where Jesus Christ is adored and glorified. Each and every one of us, together as a church — we are to be a place of safety and rest, a place of prayer, a house of worship with Jesus as our cornerstone.

We are not the foundation, only Christ is. But we have been chosen, and we have been called! The apostle Peter refers to us as “a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we] might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness and into his marvelous light”! (1 Peter 2:9).

Chosen and Precious

Peter says that once we were not a people — and that’s true. We were not “a people.” We are many different peoples, we come from all sorts of different backgrounds, different races and ethnicities, and different nationalities. Peter was particularly speaking to Gentiles, who were originally not originally part of God’s chosen people, the Israelites. But now, he says, all of us — Jews and Gentiles alike, have been chosen to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, to proclaim the mighty acts of God.

Just as the Israelites were called to carry God’s light to the nations, now all who put their faith and trust in Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike, have been chosen to carry God’s love and light into all the world. Just as we have received mercy, we are to extend God’s mercy to others. Just as we have been justified, or made right with God, now we are called to pursue justice and righteousness in the world. And just as God has made peace with us through Christ’s shed blood on the cross, now we are to be people who extend God’s peace to those around us.

And so Peter says, “come to him…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

Like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

This morning, would you let yourself be built into a spiritual house for the living God to work in and through you? 

Will you open yourself up to the stone who was rejected by men, but who has since been seen to be the true cornerstone, the strong foundation rock that we can build our lives upon?

Will you open yourself up to allow God to work in and through you?

In this time that we are living in today we need the light of Christ to shine even brighter than ever. So many people are hurting and dying, so many people are hopeless and without Christ. But God has chosen us, God has called us to be a light in this world, to break down the walls of injustice, to be people of peace who allow God to speak truth and light and hope through us. 

And so this morning let’s come to Jesus, the chosen and precious living stone, the foundation that we can build our lives upon. Let’s give ourselves to Jesus. Let’s renew our commitment to him, and let’s allow God to form and shape us into a spiritual house of worship, to carry forth God’s light to the world!